Home Up Pre-History The District The Streets City Industry The Tenement Family Names North East Art

The Doric Columns

Sun Dials, Gardens, Religion & Science

Hans Holbien (1497-1543) Enigmatic Imagery of The Ambassadors 1533
The allegorical picture is in a tradition showing learned men with symbolic books and instruments. The objects on the upper shelf includes a celestial globe, Shepherds Dial, a portable polyhedral sundial, Torquetum, Quadrant, Book and various other instruments, used for understanding the heavens and measuring time. Among the objects on the lower shelf is Peter Apian's Maths Book and Square, broken string Lute, a incomplete case of Flutes, Lutheran hymn book, and a terrestrial hand globe with Europe inverted, Dividers, .  Certain details could be interpreted as references to contemporary religious schisms and divisions. The broken lute string, for example, may signify religious discord, while the Lutheran hymn book may be a plea for Christian harmony. The concealed by curtain Crucifix, a square and the anomorphic skull indicate the concerns of the times.  The secular Ambassador's with a St Christopher Medallion has his foot  squarely in the circle of the Westminster enigmatic Floor Mosaic and the religious Ambassador remains quite outside the circle with a hint of a Mitre above his hat. Another enigmatic symbol is the Eastern carpet.


http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/Images/Ambassadors/instruments/torq_apian.jpghttp://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/Images/Ambassadors/toquetum.jpgThe shape of these lectern dials may be derived from astronomical instruments such as the Torquetum of Peter Apian, illustrated in Holbein's painting The Ambassadors, but this analogy is not entirely convincing as the Torquetum has no equivalent of the hollows which are such a characteristic feature of the lectern, and it is essentially a mobile instrument, designed for sighting the heavenly bodies, in strong contrast to these massive stone sculptures, which face immutably in one direction. The lecterns are also sometimes called 'masonic' dials and  significance of this will appear later.


Taking the lecterns 1st: these are characterized by a sloping top like a reading desk, in the equatorial plane, usually with a star on top having dials in all its angles, and at 90° to this is a hemi-cylinder with a polar dial inscribed in it (sundials are usually classified by the plane of the dial plate: thus, 'equatorial' means that the surface marked with the hour lines lies in the plane of the equator, whereas 'polar' means that it lies in the plane of the polar axis). The lectern usually has hollow dials on the south, east and west faces, and hour lines are inscribed in every available angle. One of the finest still existing is at Ladyland House, Ayrshire. There are a few simple ones, for example at Castle Fraser, which are basically cubes with a sloping upper surface having no star: it is tempting to look on these as early stages in the development of the full-blown lectern, but none of them is dated and, as we shall see, the lectern of earliest known date is already very elaborate, so the simpler versions may only be the product of less skilled masons. In the more complicated examples, such as the one noted by Ross at Mid Calder House and now at Culzean Castle, the lectern may be mounted on another block, sometimes octagonal, sometimes square and often with corners cut away to form reclining or proclining dials. In this way the number of dial faces may be over 50, some with inset metal gnomons, others with gnomons formed in the stone.



Mount Melville, near St. Andrews, has in its garden a remarkable octagonal column crowned with a facet-headed dial stone. The column, which stands on four steps, has dials both plane and sunk arranged in regular rows round it, and of all varieties of shapes, oblong, angular, heart-shaped, and circular. The lower part of the shaft is carved with rose and thistle patterns, and on one face are two twisted serpents. "Above the dial shaft a collar contains a series of 5 cylinder-shaped hollows, and behind these four slanting oblong sunk dials. Above the collar, and resting on the base, there is a square block, having 3 large cup-shaped hollows, and a large heart-shaped hollow. Above the square block is placed the facet head." There are altogether seventy dials. A somewhat similar dial is said to be at Craignethan Castle, Lanarkshire


Obelisk Dials are made up of 3 parts. The base element is a square shaft with 4 or 5 square panels on each side. In these panels are often sunken dials of bowl-hollows, hearts or triangular and rectangular shapes. The middle element is an octagonal section boss. The corners may be cut away and have dials inscribed in the hollows. The crowning element is a square tapering finial which when viewed with the lower square shaft produces the obelisk appearance. This finial also has panelled sides with up to seven or eight on each side. There can be 70 or 80 surfaces in total available for dials.


The lecterns have some counterparts on the continent, but the next class of dial, the obelisk, seems to be unique to Scotland. One of the best preserved is at Kelburn Castle, Ayrshire dated 1707. The obelisk divides conveniently into three parts: first, a square shaft divided into four or five square panels on each side, most of which have sunk dials in the form of bowl-hollows, hearts or triangular and rectangular shapes, making a total of up to 20 dials on the shaft alone. Above the shaft comes a capital, or boss, which is octagonal in section with upper and lower edges sloped off to form 24 planes in all. The corners may be cut away and have dials inscribed in the hollows. The plane surfaces may have bowl-hollows and other sinkings with dials inscribed in them. On top comes a tapering finial which gives the name 'obelisk' to the type.  It is also divided into panels; up to 7 or 8 on each side, with dials in each one, so that on the whole structure there may be 70 or 80 surfaces available for the inscription of dials. Gnomons on the shaft are usually formed in the stone, but the others may be of metal. Variations are found in the boss


Other cubes are elaborated with bowl-hollows and sloping dials above, like the one at Duthie Park, Aberdeen, which also has a spherical ball dial finial (painted black). There are also diamond shapes, balanced on a point, such as the dial from Inveresk Lodge, which is now at the Marling School, Stroud.l,

The dials at Midmar Castle and Duthie Park, Aberdeen, bear a strong resemblance to each other. Both have 4 concave dials mounted on a pedestal, and surmounted by 4 others – at Midmar sunk, and at Duthie Park plane dials – on the slope of the pinnacle. There is a ball at the top of each, and at Aberdeen the hours and hour lines are painted on it. On the pedestal of this latter dial there are shields with the initials "C. G.," "G. B.," and date 1707, and also a pestle and mortar.

Holyrood House, made for the Scottish Coronation of Charles I in 1633 by his Master Mason, John Mylne. Except possibly for Fingask Castle, it is the earliest of the class and is the most intricately carved, one of the gnomons being in the form of a grotesque face with a pointed nose. The Royal accounts show that it cost £408 15s 6d Scots plus further charges for painting and gilding, this additional charge illustrating that at that time it was customary to paint these stone sculptures.

At Ellon Castle, Aberdeenshire, a dial with each facet hollowed, and crowned with a tapering finial and ball, stands on a finely-carved pedestal mounted on steps. The height is 8 feet 6 inches. It forms a singularly fine architectural monument. A similar dial block with a plainer pedestal is at Pitmedden, in the same county.

Large wall or horizontal dials, accurate to a minute or two, were commonly used to regulate the erratic mechanical clocks of the day and polyhedral dials would not have been as convenient for this purpose. It seems highly improbable, therefore, that the multiple dials were made primarily as timekeepers; their faces were too small for accuracy and they were often mounted where they would have been difficult to read. Also, as has been explained earlier, the mathematics involved in setting them up were not exceptional, so they were not likely to have been made as mathematical tours deforce. As an example of what could be done in this direction we may take the great horizontal dial at Drumlanrig Castle, made by the London clockmaker Henry Wynne in 1692, but based on a principle devised by the mathematician William Oughtred in the 1620s. This is a 'double horizontal' dial ie 2  independent dials in one, which can be used as a ready reckoner to find the meridian, the position of the sun in the heavens, the date, sign of the zodiac and other astronomical parameters as well as the time. It also has 15 separate rings for use as a moon-dial and noon marks for many cities around the world. The multiple dials do not approach this in sophistication although the knowledge was available throughout the 17th century. 

The special feature of the multiple dials lies in their symbolic design and in their very multiplicity, which serves to reinforce the symbolic message. To appreciate this, consider the intellectual climate of the 16th and 17th centuries. Renaissance men were looking for some form of universal religion which could heal the splits in the Church and result in a Brotherhood of Man.  Many believed they had found the basis for this in the writings of the Egyptian philosopher Hermes Trismegistus, who was thought to have lived in the time of Moses and to have anticipated Christianity in many ways. Greek manuscripts containing these writings were re-discovered and translated in the 15th century and became something of a cult, along with other esoteric writings, of the mystic philosophers and the Rosicrucians. Although it was shown in the early 17th century that the supposed writings of Hermes were in fact post-Christian and not Egyptian at all, many adherents of the cult refused to accept this and continued to advocate them for much longer. It was widely believed that the Masonic Lodges were the guardians of much of this esoteric knowledge and in the 17th century many intellectuals seem to have joined the Masons in the hope of enlightenment. The early history of Freemasonry is still controversial, especially over the question of these 'non-operative' members: were they really 'speculative' masons in the modern sense of being interested mainly in the ritual and secret society aspects or were they merely honorary members elected because of their influence or interest in building? Nevertheless there is agreement that the records of the Scottish lodges go back further than anything in England, in fact to the 16th century, and that many non-operatives joined them in the century following, for whatever reason. In his forthcoming book, The Origins of Freemasonry, Dr David Stevenson traces the origins of the movement to this period in Scotland (though other authors do not agree and even deny that 'speculative' masonry grew from the operative lodges at all). The earliest recorded of these non-operatives was Sir Robert Moray, soldier, diplomat, alchemist and one of the founders of the Royal Society, who was admitted to the Lodge of Edinburgh in 1641; Dr Stevenson has published a study of him which gives us a good insight into the intellectual atmosphere of the time. 

Moray made considerable use of Masonic seals and expounded their meaning in his letters. One of the symbols he employed was the compass with its needle pointing to a star, which also occurs in symbol books of the time with various meanings: constancy towards God, or the Virgin Mary ('Stella Maris') or, often in association with a heart, a loved one. The influence of the stars on our fate is another possible interpretation. In form this symbol is virtually identical to the bowl-hollow with a bar gnomon across its diameter, found on the east or west sides of many dials (see for example Holyrood, or Pitmedden House; in other dials the gnomon is cut in the stone and stretches across the full diameter). When one remembers that it is an essential requirement of the polyhedral dial that all the gnomons point to the Pole Star, the parallel is evident and the multiplicity of gnomons reinforces the message. It is tempting also to speculate that the single direction of the gnomons, despite the varied orientation of the dial faces, may have been intended to symbolize the constant element of faith common to all sects. Wither (1634) illustrates a quadrant sighted on a star, commenting that the stars are subject to God and are here to help, not hinder us, in God's command and he not only rules them by his pow'rs but, makes their Glory servant unto ours. 

The accumulation of evidence of this sort, although circumstantial, leaves little doubt that these dials had a much greater significance for their 17th-century owners than the mere telling of time. It seems likely that the contacts between intellectuals and working craftsmen in the Masonic Lodges could have stimulated the fashion in symbolic dials, which were expensive items to make and required the patronage of the rich as well as the talents of the artisan. Which of the two actually provided the designs is a debatable point. There can be no doubt that Masons at the top of their profession were capable of designing as well as executing the work: John Mylne and his sons for example, almost certainly designed the dials at the Palace of Holyrood House and Drummond Castle as well as working on them with their own hands (Mylne, was Master of the Masonic Lodge of Scone as his father and grandfather had been before him, going back to about 1550), but it was also customary at the time for gentlemen to design their own houses and supervise the building themselves and the same may well have applied to the sundials. The parts played by gentleman amateurs and professional masons as architects in the 17th century are discussed and documented at length by MacGibbon and Ross (1892), and it is clear that there were no sharp demarcation lines at that time. They also show that it was usual to specify features such as windows, gateways etc. to be copied from existing buildings and one can easily imagine this to be the case with sundials, especially the lecterns and obelisks, which are virtually identical, within each class, in overall shape and differ only in details which could have been supplied by the individual craftsman. In this case the symbolic motive may not have been uppermost in the mind of the owner but it was certainly at the root of the fashion and the meeting house provided by the Masonic Lodges may well have contributed to its evolution. - A R Somervile

Lectern: Castle Fraser.

Duthie Park, Ellon Castle (1, 2), Forgue, Grandhome, Haddo House, Kildrummy Gardens, Logic House (1, 2)*, Midmar Castle, Philorth House, Pitmedden, Pittodrie House, (Rubislaw Den) to Schivas House, Turner Hall*, Williamston.

Misc: Aberdeen (1, 2, 3), Crathes Castle, Dunecht House


1597 David Anderson (Dae athin Davie)
hade devysit ane instrument, of his awin ingyne, to draw and mak dyellis or sone horolages

and he offered to make one on a public building in Aberdeen

quhilk suld schaw houris verie justlie be the sone, with every moneth of the yer, the langest,schortest, and equinoctiall dayis (Turreff 1859).

Since he did not require payment until the work was completed to the satisfaction of the Baillies, the offer was accepted! This ingenious individual was known as 'Davie-do-a'-thing' and he later became City Architect of Aberdeen.

Sundial dated 1692 on its rounded face and the letters 'WI' and 'LS' on its squared side. It was reportedly found at the site of Broadford's Flax Mill during demolition work in the first few years of this century. Much rebuilding work has been done in that area in the years 1901-1912 with a large house and garden being demolished during that period. The sundial is 0.6m high and 0.38m wide, with a c5 sq cm socket in the base.


Pittodrie House Sundial, Chapel Of Garioch - 17th century. Cube dial with chamfered angles on rough shaft, ball finial mounted on spike.


In what is called the Earl Marischal's bedroom, in the ruins of Dunnottar Castle, there is a stone with a clock face carved in relief and fitted with a gnomon. It is placed close under a west wall, so that for nearly half the day it must be useless, and at all times some imagination would be required to read it aright on account of the arrangement of the numerals. The stone has probably been shifted from its original place, and the addition of the gnomon was no doubt the fancy of some custodian of 50 or a 100 years ago.

Send mail to jazzmaster@jazzeddie.f2s.com with questions or comments about the design of this web site.
Last modified: 01/09/2013